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Web 2.0: A brave new world?

I admit I have a love affair with the internet. There are naysayers who see the demise of “real” communities and lament the loss of “authenticity”. Some of the criticism reminds me of the sci-fi novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. To borrow some text from Neil Postman who compares Orwell and Huxley in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985):

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

What I think is not being grasped here is that these impulses are not new. Humans are ever on the lookout for new banal distractions and forms of amusements. It used to be Christians to the lions and now it is a sea of “Charlie bit me videos“. What I find encouraging about Web 2.0 is that instead of passive viewing it is interactive and democratic (in-so-much as those who have access to it). It is said that there has been more video uploaded in the last six months onto YouTube than created by major American networks that have been running since 1948. I find this heartening and not horrifying and do so because of the very banality of the content. People are creating new ways of thinking, doing and interacting in ways that have never before been done. Though there is a sea of information we can and do filter it out by ourselves. Unlike TV where it is filtered by censors, advertising and time.

As I said above I love the internet and its interconnectivity. Yesterday, I had an online debate about race in South Africa; sent someone I never met an article about Bushmen in Southern Africa; purchased a song by my favourite band via i-Tunes; emailed an old friend; connected with another old friend via Facebook; begun the design of a series of online courses for my new university; and watched some inane videos on YouTube.

Today, I did much of the same but also wrote this blog and signed up for Second Life. I did this not because I wish to fly about an imaginary world but to test some new interactive software — a mash-up between Moodle and SL — called Sloodle.

For those that are tech savvy I suggest a look at Michael Wesch from the University of Kentucky. He is an anthropologist that works on digital communities and has some excellent online lectures and videos. My favourite is the Web is us/ing us.

I do wonder how other people out there feel about the web? I know there are digital divide issues that limit many peoples participation in it and as technology increases that lag becomes more relevant. What I found in rural spaces is that people thirst for information and what I really enjoyed doing was saving whole web pages and showing them to the community. Little trivial things became great sharing moments where I explained and showed what animals we have in Canada, Google Earth and so on.

I see an emancipatory side to the web as well as a great learning tool. And as silly, inane and trivial much of it is, I would much prefer the web to television.


  • Michael Francis

    I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.